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Key West fleet gets foiled by fickle winds


© St. Petersburg Times, published May 23, 2001

The wind had been blowing strongly out of the north for days, and the forecast didn't look that bad for race day on May 17.

The 70-boat fleet, largest by far in recent years, was itching to get started on the sail south after a boisterous party the night before at Clearwater Yacht Club. The stage was set for the annual long-distance classic race from Clearwater Pass to the quays at Key West.

When the boats were counted at the Key West finish line, only 10 survived a brutally slow 220-mile race within the allotted 56 hours.

The carbon fiber trimaran Silverheels, skippered by Lyman White of Englewood, was the first boat to complete the course, but it took a testy 47 hours, 25 minutes.

Finishing third overall and first in the monohull class, Bob Armstrong's newly purchased Tripp 33 Tripp Teased heard the finish-line horn one minute after 10 a.m. May 19 while covering the distance in just over 48 hours.

"I've done this race since 1986 and this was the slowest," Armstrong said. "The first day was fantastic. We had the spinnaker up the whole time and hit nine knots at one time. Then it turned into a parking lot."

Despite the first-to-finish honors for Armstrong, it was Jay Tyson's Davis Island Yacht Club-based J/29 Nancy's J that captured the top prize in the Spinnaker A division after PHRF rating adjustments were figured into the scores.

"We had a great crew, a perfect mix of people who wanted to have fun and crew who were intense," Tyson said. "We had a game plan and stuck to it."

The plan traditionally for this race is to stay close to the coast and use the evening easterly breezes to keep the boat moving in the early-morning hours. It worked this year -- to a limited degree.

"We sat for eight hours off of Boca (Grande)" Tyson said. "But we went within 200 yards of Sanibel Beach before turning for the finish line."

Following a similar strategy -- and with similar results -- was Spinnaker B division winner Tom Digiacomo, sailing his Nelson Merek 36 One Trick Pony with a crew of nine sailors. His Davis Island Yacht Club team covered the distance in just under 52 hours, 22 minutes.

"We went east," Digiacomo said, "and broke away at Sanibel for Smith Shoal and had wind all the way."

Winning top honors in the Florida Offshore Multihull Association class after rating handicaps were applied was the Corsair F/27 trimaran tri Southwinds, including crew Rock Koch of St. Petersburg, Jamie Rabbitt of Tampa and Ali Deese of Brooksville.

Deese, a relatively new sailor, is a skipper for the University of South Florida women's intercollegiate team. Rabbitt raced for the USF team prior to his graduation.

Finishing second in the 10-boat multihull fleet was John Scanlon's Newick 37 Roamin Chariot, with Silverheels dropping to third after rating handicap adjustments. Seven other multihulls, ranging in size from 30-44 feet, were unable to finish the course due to the light winds.

Principal Race Officer Fairlie Brinkley of the Clearwater Yacht Club, one of four west coast clubs co-hosting the event, was pleased with the rapid revitalization of the distance race as entries increase from 27 boats in 2000 to 71 in 2001.

"I just couldn't be more excited," Brinkley said, "and the idea of having four yacht clubs pull off one event with no arguments was terrific. Obviously I'm disappointed in the weather."

Despite the lack of wind throughout the second day, which was unusually hot and cloudless, and not being able to finish the race, most of the competitors continued on to Key West for the Conch Republic ambiance and for the awards ceremony.

The decision to quit racing and start the motors was based on the race-imposed time limit and the time it would take to reach the parties.

"We made the decision based on the forecast, and the fact we couldn't make the cutoff even if we went 10 knots," said Treasure Island's Richard Booth, who was competing in the non-spinnaker division aboard his Tartan 4100 Addiction.

"We were disappointed to say the least, but we can't wait to do the race again," Booth said.

Other finishers included Desperado, Fire & Ice and Critical Path, in Spinnaker A, and Tigress, in Spinnaker B. Tigress made the cutoff time by less than 55 minutes after sailing for more than 55 hours.

Another 17 boats were scheduled to race from Naples to Florida on the evening of May 17, but none were able to complete their 96-mile course before the 26-hour time limit expired.

Next year's event will be held "same time, same place," Brinkley said.

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